Right here at the beginning, let me say that I’m no expert on relationships, other than I’ve had a few, so the following is simply my observations, combined with what I’ve gleaned from others, about the transition that happens when a relationship we’ve been in is no longer with us.
To start with, I think you’d agree with me that relationships are a lot of work, as in, a lot of effort, but I think you’d also agree that fulfilling relationships with other people are well worth that effort. Don’t you think so? I say this based on my own experience that the relationships I didn’t put any effort into went away from me, sometimes quickly, sometimes taking years to depart, but they all went away eventually. And I can look back on some of those relationships and tell myself that I let a potential relationship get away from me because at the time, I wasn’t willing to try any harder than I did to uphold my end of the “friend stick.”
Relationships are a two-way deal – I do my part and you do yours. When I don’t do my part or you don’t do yours, it changes things. And when there’s no communication about the changes, no “fixing” of things, no figuring out what “went wrong,” the relationship goes away, sometimes never to return. And if that’s the case, it dies. These thoughts of mine are about what happens when that end comes to the relationship.
Let me give you an example.
As a child, with both a mother and a father in my growing-up years, I somehow got it into my head that I would always have a tangible, physical relationship with my parents, as long as they were both alive. I knew that once they died, the relationship would change into one without the physical evidence of their existence in my life, but as long as they still breathed, I thought I would have a relationship with them. I had never experienced anything like a break in the familial group relationship – no parental divorces, no angry “family break-ups” – so I always thought that my family would still be there on some level. My dad had a favorite saying that stemmed from his own life experience of his parents divorcing when he was fifteen, and since he didn’t make it up, perhaps you’ve heard it before: “blood is thicker than water.” He always told me that family stood together no matter what, even when they disagreed on something or when someone did something that the others didn’t like. We were family. We were in this, whatever “this” was, together. So I think for me it was a fundamental thing to imagine that my relationship with my parents and siblings would always continue; even though our lives didn’t always connect regularly, for the most part, we still sent birthday cards, exchanged Christmas presents and acknowledged other milestones as they happened in our lives.
When I was 55 years old, my dad died. My mother and siblings didn’t tell me about it. My dad had spent the previous three weeks in the hospital, which they also didn’t let me know about, and then he died. I was at work the following day when I got a call from an out-of-state cousin who gave me the news.
It’s hard to convey what that felt like. I was shocked beyond words. Immediately, my brain began thinking that this couldn’t be true, that my dad hadn’t really died, that my mother and siblings would never do such a thing as not let me know something like my dad had been in the hospital, let alone that he had died.
But I also instantly knew that if it was true, my relationship with those family members had changed. I wasn’t quite sure exactly how it was going to be different but I knew without a doubt that it would never be the same between any of us again. The realization that my own mother wanted nothing to do with me anymore, that she and my siblings had literally conspired together to keep me from being a part of this major event in our lives, was overwhelming on many levels. I was angry, hurt, furious, devastated, abandoned, suddenly alone. The crown on top of all this was that my son was included in this familial abandonment. My son, who was the only grandchild of my father (and mother). My son, who didn’t have the direct connection to his grandparents that I had to them as my parents, mainly because my mother had never wanted to be a grandmother so young in her life in the first place and, as she said to me in her own words, “didn’t want him to be born.” My son, who has a mama bear for a mom, and who was possibly more angry on his behalf than she was at her own betrayal. (You can mess with me all you like but don’t even think about messing with my kid… you know the kind.)
The changing and ultimately the ending of a relationship brings a lot of human emotions with it, even when it’s a change that’s going to be a good one for us, as it is when we let go of an abusive spouse or that crazy friend who’s always getting us in trouble, and the emotions I felt were monstrous, huge, painful and constant. The only way I knew I could get beyond that horrible sense of betrayal and abandonment was to figure out some way to deal with those volatile emotions. Each one of us is different in how we process the change that happens when a relationship dies but for me, it was critical that I find out how to forgive my family members for their actions. I started that process by identifying what I thought each of them had done to me and then, for lack of better words, I prayed for them; not for the things they’d done but for them as people. Just a short few words but it was prayer. And I also prayed for me, that I would find the space in my heart to forgive them. It took a very long time, maybe a couple of years, before I could talk about my dad’s death or about my mother and siblings without wanting to scream or rip a face off, but there eventually came a day when I could talk about all of it without my gut being tied up in huge painful knots.
I know we’ve all had many relationships over our life spans – parents, friends, co-workers, children, siblings, cousins, bosses… the list is endless. My life has been no different – I can look back and see many people who’ve come through life during my time here on Planet Earth. It can take a lot of hard work with a lot of intense effort to foster a relationship and then it’s a lot of work to continue it after it’s been established. Is it worth it? I think so. Definitely! But then I’m extroverted, people-oriented, an Enneagram 7, a Chinese Water dragon, a Cancer – all of which are energized by people, by relationships, by the interaction with other human beings. For others who are not so people-y, it can be a challenge to have a relationship with another person, and I’m guessing, even more work to keep a relationship going.
My dad died nine years ago. I’ve worked hard to resolve the anger and hurt that I felt at the time, but the feeling of abandonment has lingered. I have forgiven all of them for not including me in my dad’s departure, for not allowing me the opportunity to say good-bye, for not allowing him to see his oldest child before he left Planet Earth. What I haven’t done is forgotten. I carry with me a hole that’s shaped like my birth family – my mother, my brother, my sister. I don’t know that it’ll ever go away but I do know this: as I have filled up my life with other relationships, with friendships that are “family members” I’ve created for myself, the family-shaped hole has gotten smaller, like it’s being squeezed out, and as I’ve come to realize that the family relationship I’ve had with my son has changed, I know that the same thing will happen for the son-shaped hole.
Relationships are important to us as human beings. It creates a sense of well-being to know that we belong – to our family, to our parents, to our children, to our friends, to our jobs with our co-workers and bosses, to our place in the neighborhood, to our spot on the planet. Some of these relationships occupy positions of greater importance than others – for instance, for some of us, our family is more important to us that the neighbor next door, and for others, the relationships we have with our co-workers are a higher priority than our family. We’re all different, though, so the relationships I hold closer to me will probably be different than the ones you hold to you. It’s up to each of us to identify our own important relationships and to do whatever we can to keep those people close to us, whether it’s physically-close or communication-close. And when a relationship changes, dies, or just plain goes away, what we’re left with is trying to figure out how to go on with our lives, how to fill the hole that’s shaped like the person we no longer have a relationship with.
I have a few ideas on what we can do to fill up the space with other people:
- Get actively involved with a group of some kind:
- people who go out for coffee every week or month
- a book club
- Tuesday-night taco eaters
- people who hike waterfalls
- Call up someone else, another friend or family member, and go have a cup of tea or lunch or see a movie together.
- Join meetup.com (it’s free) and do a search for meetups in your area – there are lots of people who are getting together to do the very things you yourself enjoy doing.
- Volunteer somewhere: walk dogs at the animal shelter, sit at the information desk at the local hospital, join a group that helps out senior citizens who can no longer rake their own leaves, etc. Check out volunteer match.org or volunteer.gov to see where you can volunteer near you.
- For you extroverts, start your own group. Call up some friends who would like to get together to do something you all enjoy. Start a book club that meets once a month or a hikers group that looks for easy-to-hike trails that everyone can do. Whatever your interest is, start a group.
- For you introverts, when your extrovert friend calls and asks you to have tacos with them every first Tuesday night at the local 99 cent taco place, go. They need you.
- Take a trip. Go somewhere, anywhere. Go for the weekend, go for a week. Just go.
Will it be work? Sure, it’ll be work. But what we do now to squeeze smaller the person-shaped hole of the person whose relationship is no longer a part of our lives will benefit us in the long run. Trust me… and join with me on this journey to make our dead relationship holes smaller as we fill in the space around them with other people, people who want us in their lives as much as we want them in ours. Squeeze away, people. I’m glad you all are part of my own life and I cherish the space you each hold. You are helping me make my own people-shaped empty holes so much smaller!